There are a lot of pet toy companies out there but I recently discovered one whose primary mission is to give back and support animal adoption programs. That company is CharlieDog and Friends. I recently sat down with Suzy Allman , “Top Dog” and Founder of CharlieDog and Friends to learn about how the company was started, how it operates, and what is in store for the future.
Tell us about yourself first. What is your history? Where did you go to school and work in the past?
I had the misfortune to be one of seven children born to parents who told us “You can do anything!”, because I believed it and tried it! I’ve been a paper girl, a shoe-shine girl, a shepherd, a reporter, a waitress, a hostess, and now a news and sports photographer and the founder of a toy company.
I studied English Communications at Lemoyne College in Syracuse, New York, before getting a BSC in Environmental Science from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. In addition to running CharlieDogs, I currently work for The New York Times as a sports photographer, covering all New York sports teams in all the Major League sports.
Who have been your business startup inspirations? Did you learn anything from them specifically?
My start-up inspiration has been Blake Mykoski’s TOMS shoes — I learned from his book, Start Something That Matters, to “build giving into everything you do”, and that has been our mantra and a natural progression for us. I also get daily branding inspiration from Down Under, from Bernadette Jiiwa’s “The Story of Telling“.
What was your inspiration to start your company?
With four rescue dogs of my own, I stumbled into rescue work late in 2011 when I heard of a “death row” pit bull that had found an adopter, but no way to get to her new home. I offered to drive the five hours from the New York City shelter to Watkins Glen, NY. “Sarah”, as she was known then, trembled on my lap nearly the entire way.
That gave me a lot of time in the car — “thinkin’ time”. It was on this trip that I 1) dispensed with my preconceived notions of the pit bulls that fill America’s shelters; 2) came to LOVE transporting “death row” dogs to their new homes, and 3) came up with the idea for CharlieDog and Friends, to create stuffed animals based on real-life rescues, raising money and awareness for America’s homeless pets. To me, one small part of the solution to shelter overpopulation is to convince families — persuaded by their children — to make the shelter the first stop when seeking the new family pet.
Tell us how your company started and when. Who was involved and what did each person do?
I pitched the idea to my husband, best friend and main financial backer, John Allman, on our weekend hike, and his excitement for the project made me think back to that dangerous encouragement from my parents: You can do anything!
With that mutual support in place, I started my search for a toy designer. It ended on Page One of a Google search — not a recommended method of finding one of your most important employees, but Kathy Voerg was a perfect fit, and just across the George Washington Bridge, in New Jersey.
The rest I did myself: accounting, applying for permits, sourcing the manufacturing overseas — while building a reputation with New York City rescues for donating transport services from city shelters. It is truly revolutionary what an individual can create with a laptop these days: from idea to conception, from production to marketing and fulfillment, nearly everything I put in place for CharlieDogs was done through my laptop, with dogs at my feet and coffee in hand.
Tell us an interesting story about your business. Were there any “wow” moments? Anything funny or unusual?
A couple. One: My transports are done out of deep love for homeless dogs given a second chance — but they’re also useful “outreach” opportunities. I’ve used iPads, iPhones, GoPro cameras — in short, anything that will take a picture and post it to the community — to show rescued dogs enjoying their first taste of freedom to my Facebook community. Edited together, I made a video of our transports that we used to introduce voters to our work during the EarlyShares Small Business Challenge in 2012. We won this national competition, and I believe it was because of this video.
Here’s something we did NOT expect for our company: We are all too willing to stop making our toys in China, and happy to pay the expenses involved in “Made in America”. To that end, we sourced the ONLY factory still making plush toys in the United States. Yes, there’s only one. And, unfortunately, what we learned is that, (counterintuitively, perhaps) “Made in America” is not automatically synonymous with better quality or better customer service. Our order with the Phoenix factory was an unqualified disaster; we found ourselves returning the entire first (and last!) order of toys to the factory because the quality was so sub-par.
What is your role in the company now?
I am still Top Dog and Founder; I take great pleasure in running our Social Media campaigns and carrying on time-consuming conversations on Facebook with our fans. I also entertain any and all requests for donations of toys to children’s education outreach or therapy dog work.
What does your company sell and how does it make money?
We sell plush toy dogs and cats (and soon, horses and rabbits) based on real-life animal shelter adoptions. We also sell unique “Adopt” collar bracelets that look like little dog collars and are worn by both our toys and our customers!
Which companies do you consider to be competitors?
We don’t have any competition, as far as we’re concerned. We believe that people buy our toys not so much for the cuddle factor (although there is that), but because they are moved by a love of America’s homeless pets, and want to express that. There is no other company that makes plush pets based entirely on real-life animal rescue pets.
What makes your products and services better than competitors’ offerings?
Our mission makes them better: we donate five dollars for every large toy sold back to the shelter from which the real-life adoption came. We donate three dollars of every collar sold to our “Rescue of the Month”, and four dollars of every Pocket Pittie sold goes to a pit bull advocacy group. They’re also instructional, as their hangtags and postcards tell the story of the actual rescue that inspired the toy. But we also believe they’re among the cutest stuffed animals out there! Our line of “Pocket” toys are also highly collectible. Our larger toys have serial numbers on their tags.
Are you planning an IPO? If so, when? How are you raising capital?
No. Our capital is raised with our own private savings and by investing our earnings back into the company.
What would you define as your “primary market”?
America is a land of pet lovers. Given this, we feel like our toys are uniquely positioned to appeal to adopters and rescuers, or just people whose pets look like our toys! Women who have adopted pets of their own and are buying as gifts for themselves or for children, or for adults who have also rescued.
How big do you think this market will be in terms of total revenue in 2015?
The plush toy market has been slightly depressed since 2008, but we feel we occupy a place all our own and hope to experience strong growth, despite this.
What forms of marketing do you use to attract clients?
Almost all of our marketing is done with social media: Pinterest, a very active Facebook page, Twitter, with video, holiday promotions, blog posts and guest blog posts. We have been successful in getting our story into dog-related magazines, and the win in the EarlyShares Small Business Challenge gave us a boost (part of that award was $7,500 air time on XM Radio.)
How big is the company in terms of its workforce?
On the small side. Five people working part-time, two working full-time.
Is there any announcement you’d like to make?
Yes! CharlieDog and Friends will be sending one of our toys on a mission to cross America, from the eastern-most shelter in Maine, to the western-most, in California. “Murphy” will be relying on the kindness of strangers to get him from coast to coast.
To learn more about CharlieDog and Friends visit them at http://www.charliedogandfriends.com